Rappers and the 2016 Presidential Election: Was Hip-Hop Woke Enough?
Politics As Usual
Was hip-hop woke enough in 2016?
Words: Sowmya Krishnamurthy
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
“George Bush doesn’t care about Black people…” On Sept. 2, 2005, Kanye West made history by putting sitting President George W. Bush on blast for the government’s epic mishandling of Hurricane Katrina. Since then, Kanye was lauded for being an iconoclast; having the guts to say the thing—no matter how uncomfortable—that everyone was thinking. On Nov. 18, 2016 Kanye West made history by shockingly endorsing Donald Trump 10 days after the 2016 Presidential election. “I told y’all I didn’t vote, right? What I didn’t tell you…If I were to have voted I would have voted on Trump,” the rapper told fans in San Jose, Calif. Standing atop a floating stage, a fitting bully pulpit, the 39-year-old lauded perhaps the most controversial and hated President-elect in modern history on The Saint Pablo Tour. It’s no secret that Trump and his cronies have disparaged Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, women and the LGBT community, to name a few, but Kanye wasn’t giving marginalized groups room to cry. “Specifically to Black people: stop focusing on racism,” he announced. “His world is racist. This world is racist, okay? Let’s stop being distracted to focus on that as much. It’s just a fucking fact. We are in a racist country, period. Do not allow people to make us talk about that so fucking long.”
The irony of Kanye’s 17-minute monologue wasn’t lost. Wasn’t it all good just a decade ago? Fans begged for the “old Kanye” while others marked his career D.O.A. with the trending topic #KanyeIsOverParty. But, we can’t put it all on his shoulders. Especially after ’Ye’s incident several days later (see page 15). 2016 was a pivotal year in politics; a historic presidential battle between the first female candidate, Hillary Clinton, and the rogue outsider, Donald Trump; not to mention, important Congressional elections that could tip power in the Senate and the House of Representatives. From President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders to Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, everyone wanted to politick with Black, Brown and young voters.
So in a year of being woke, did hip-hop snooze?
Amid the election noise, hip-hop activism was but a dull roar. Many rappers appeared disinterested or altogether ignorant of key issues. In May 2015, for example, Ja Rule was peddling credit cards on Fox Business when he endorsed Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent Jeb Bush. “I like Hillary,” he began, “But, you know, it’s crazy—because I also think Jeb is a good candidate as well, but I’m a Democrat so I will vote Hillary.” Huh? The awkward moment became a sad Internet joke of, “What would Ja Rule say?” Ja wasn’t the only one who appeared out of touch. High-profile artists openly criticized civil activism and Black Lives Matter; thereby dismissing police brutality, racism and incarceration facing Black people. In July, A$AP Rocky harangued Black Lives Matter as a “bandwagon” trend. “How come Black lives only matter when a police officer takes it?” he asked while on New York City’s Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club. “It should always matter. All lives matter.” Lil Wayne played oblivious too. “I am a young Black rich muthafucka,” he told Nightline in November. “If that don’t let you know that America understand that matter these days, I don’t know what it is. My life matter. Especially to my bitches.”
After being publicly flogged, A$AP Rocky and Lil Wayne both rescinded—or at least, amended—their respective statements. However, there‘s something bigger at play here. “I don’t feel connected to a damn thing that ain’t got nothin’ to do with me,” Lil Wayne said. That defiant sentiment has more truth than perhaps hip-hop wants to admit.
Hip-hop has historically represented the voiceless, young people in society’s fringes. In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” depicted grim, crack-laden New York City. In 1988, N.W.A rapped about police brutality in Compton in “Fuck tha Police.” In 1990, Public Enemy encouraged us to “Fight the Power.” In 2004, Puff Daddy made us “Vote or Die.” That paradigm has shifted. Your favorite rapper is likely far removed from the streets. When you’ve traded the hood for the ’burbs and Air Jordans for Maison Margielas, you have #FirstWorldProblems. Lil Wayne is right in his assertion: He’s rich and famous and the likelihood that he’ll get pulled over and roughed up by the cops is slim to none. He lives in a bubble that ostensibly transcends race and class. A$AP Rocky shared a similar sentiment in a June 2015 interview at Oxford University. “I wasn’t there when [police brutality incidents] occurred, and on top of that, I didn’t go to any marches, I didn’t go to any protests. So, for me, I can’t speak on it because I’m not helping to change it.”
In all fairness, there were artists who got involved to varying degrees. Jay Z, Beyoncé and Pharrell Williams headlined a concert in the battleground state of Ohio. Chance The Rapper led a throng of fans to early voting in his hometown of Chicago. Common and a slew of others encouraged voting via social media. Killer Mike heavily endorsed Bernie Sanders and Run The Jewels, T.I. and Eminem were some of the artists who dropped woke music. Still, the efforts felt disjointed and lacked the overwhelming passion we had for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, respectively. In 2008, Young Jeezy soundtracked Obama’s rise with the definitive anthem “My President.” The first Black president had charisma and magnetism; a je ne sais quoi that rappers wanted to be around. “Barack Obama’s election was a sense of pride for the hip-hop community,” says CNN commentator Bakari Sellers. “But, we failed at keeping that energy alive and keeping that movement going.”
Let’s face it: Hillary Clinton didn’t really have the same “It” factor. The cool kids didn’t really want to hang out with her. Some were salty Bernie Sanders supporters and some, like San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick, propagated a false equivalency that Clinton and Trump were equally horrible—so why bother? “It was embarrassing to watch that these are our two candidates. Both are proven liars and it almost seems like they’re trying to debate who’s less racist,” he said to USA Today. The athlete, who has famously boycotted the National Anthem over discrimination, didn’t bother to vote for anyone.
Herein lies the bigger question: What responsibility does hip-hop have to speak out? Sure, it would be great if artists use their platforms for more than ear hustling us about their music or plugging their streaming service of choice. It would be awesome if they could be selfless and rally for social issues. That’s the fuzzy-wuzzy, feel-good way to look at it. In reality, rappers—and celebrities in general—are directed by self-interest or worried that taking a political side may adversely impact their careers. “I think sometimes rappers don’t understand their possible influence on the political process,” says Sellers. “Other times rappers who attempt to be engaged get silenced while others who have politically self-servant views get magnified.”
The other part of this problem is hip-hop’s weird, entangled relationship with Donald Trump. While many denounce Trump for stoking hatred, it’s easy to forget how enraptured he once had us. In the 1990s, his name symbolized success and hip-hop clamored to pop bottles with him. According to CNN, Trump was mentioned at least 318 times in rap lyrics between 1989 and 2016. The reality star made a cameo on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1994, appeared on G-Unit Radio in 2005 and was the inspiration for Mac Miller’s platinum-seller “Donald Trump” in 2011. In October 2016, Puff Daddy called Trump “a friend.” In 2015, Russell Simmons called Trump an “amazing friend” who flew him on private planes and let him crash at his Florida pad. Hell, even KRS-One said that the Republican “was a friend to hip hop in his early days.” If we have to keep it all the way 100, some rappers probably secretly voted for Trump. Years of friendship—and Trump’s allure among the rich—can’t be altogether discounted.
America is still trying to figure out what the hell happened—and how we move forward—in the aftermath of the election. But from the ashes, maybe some good can rise. “America has taken off the mask,” says David Banner. “We will see the monster it has always been.” The rapper predicts a new age of activism, even among those previously hesitant to speak out, like himself. “This may be the best thing to ever happen to Black people, maybe in history because now there’s no excuse and I’m starting with me,” he told Facebook Live. Sellers agrees. “We cannot and will not be silent. Hip-hop will be the soundtrack to our activism and artists are going to be on the front lines of change.” Hip-hop has the power to fight (and shape) the power.
Check out more from XXL’s Winter 2016 issue including our Travis Scott cover story interview, Lin-Manuel Miranda's success with the hip-hop musical Hamilton, Eye Candy The Real Chela's Way, Wyclef Jean's letter to President Obama, Show & Prove with Rob $tone, Playboi Carti, Saba and more.
See Exclusive Photos From Travis Scott's XXL Winter 2016 Cover Shoot